Humans in the Wilderness; Does Our Physical Activity Belong?

There is a topic I’ve had on my mind for a couple of months now that I have been debating how to form into a post. This semester I am taking a class called Natural Environments, Wellness and Health at university. It is taught by a prof that I had during Running Tunisia who was extremely helpful in re-arranging my exam schedule in order for me to be in Africa. Later, her daughter Emma was chosen for Expedition India and I had the pleasure of watching Emma strive under the incredible physical feat of nearly a marathon a day (with an ultra smack dab in the middle!).

Only a few hundred metres into our weekend in Yoho National Park. Keith was a bit of a slave driver and made me carry the bigger backpack that was practically bigger than me! (Just kidding, he took over just down the trail from here).

Janice is one of the most dynamic profs I’ve ever had, frequently acting out the aggressive charge of a grizzly bear and telling stories about her vast experience in the outdoors.

In this class, much like the name suggests, we have been studying how natural environments, like parks, lakes, mountains, and trail systems for example play into human health and wellness and the material has had me reflecting.

Since before I was even born my family has been into outdoor pursuits. We camped, canoed, kayaked, hiked, biked, skied; you name it, we did it. Heck we even have a photo of my family canoeing, complete with me in my mum’s tummy. And while we were always environmentally conscious – practicing no trace camping, never leaving our campfire smouldering, respecting wildlife – I’d never reflected on how our physical activity, specifically running, hiking and mountain biking, impacted the environment before this class. Don’t get me wrong I knew what human activity could do especially those who left their garbage etc, but I had always thought of our family as environmentally friendly enough that we didn’t have an effect.

One of my favourite photos from Yoho. There was such an incredible amount of running water in the park. All I could think of is how important it is that we protect this precious resource.

As a avid hiker, trail runner and mountain biker living a stone’s throw away from the Canadian Rocky Mountains, I get on ‘mountain time’ every chance I can. I think I’ve been in the mountains more weekends since I got back to Calgary two months ago than I have stayed in the city! But this topic has been weighing on my mind lately in a big way. You see as much as I’d like to think that I’m environmentally friendly by respecting wild life and packing out my garbage, the truth is that I’m invading areas every time I’m out there that otherwise would have been peaceful. Whether or not I see a bear or cougar, or even squirrel or pica for that matter, I’m trespassing in their home. The trails that have been used by thousands of human feet and over the years and have become highways were once for four legged creatures only. Each time I step off the path to have a pee (which we all know is about 47 times per hike) I am ‘ruining’ some untouched forest, crushing small plants, disturbing the moss and frightening the small creatures.

Another factor is that each time I go out there I use my car, which while is pretty good on gas is still emitting fossil fuels. While I’ve always said I would prefer to live IN the mountains rather that NEAR the mountains, even in towns like Canmore, Banff and Whistler you need to use a vehicle to access most trails.

Early in September, my first escape to the mountains. This is just down from the ‘summit’ of Mount Yamuska during our hike/run.

I really haven’t come to any conclusions, and I’m not going to go off on some rant about how horrible humans are. But I’m thinking about it. A lot. I guess right now I should just be grateful that there is still wilderness to explore, still wildlife to admire.

Perhaps eventually my reflection will lead me somewhere, to some wildly spiritual conclusion. But for now, what do you think? Is there a place for human physical activity in the wilderness? Are the obvious human benefits more important that the negative effect on the wildlife? Are there ways for humans and wilderness to both be sustained? If you have any insight, please leave it in the comments! I am having trouble forming conclusions of my own and would love to hear how others have (or have not) made peace with this issue.

This is from atop one of the glaciers in Yoho. Isn’t it beautiful? The sun flirted with us all day coming in and out of the clouds and managed to burst out while we were on the glacier. (Photo credit on all photos in this post to Keith).

5 thoughts on “Humans in the Wilderness; Does Our Physical Activity Belong?

  1. I love the photos and your reflections, Jill. On the pro side, I living in town (80,000 people) where I can use my bike to access most of the things I want, & am 5 min. from the ocean and 1.5 hours from Mt. Baker. So in many ways, I feel close to nature on a daily basis. But when I am in the mountains, hiking, intersecting with the marmots, big horn sheep, ravens, etc, I truly feel home. I need that depth of nature to restore my soul. It is the cathedral of my soul.
    We need each other – I think. We need raw nature to remind us of the wholeness of creation. Perhaps there are ways nature needs us – I’m not as sure of that. But certainly it needs us to respect it, and to protect it – legally and practically.
    You raise some really good questions. I’ll be watching for other posts.
    🙂 Thanks for your thoughtfulness.

  2. Perhaps part of the answer may be that we learn to respect that there are some areas in nature where humans do not go. Just as we don’t want/have major wildlife in our living areas, we should leave adequate areas for wildlife to be free of us humans. As the commercial value of back country activities revs up, this becomes an increasingly greater challenge. Thankfully for Canada and all Canadians, we have lots of land at hand. Supporting organizations dedicated to respecting/preserving wild places, and challenging governments to see beyond economic gain are two steps that every Canadian can take. The David Suzuki Foundation is a great place to start:

  3. Great comments above by pd and bgilday. bgilday – I don’t believe that nature needs us humans however – we just tend to overrun it eventually. Take India for example – when I visited there a few years ago it made me believe that unchecked human population growth leads to decimation of nature. I don’t think there’s really much left of ‘wild’ India except in some of the mountain reaches. Anyway, to my point Jill – you ask “are there ways for humans and wilderness to both be sustained?” and I believe that yes, there are ways: pd points to David Suzuki as a good example and I agree. I also challenge you and your readers to consider the positive impact on the environment one can make by eating less (or no) meat. It makes a difference. I won’t go into details here but you can try Googling ‘the compassionate diet by Arran Stephens’ for a good overview. You might know Arran as the guy behind Nature’s Path organic foods. Also, as I’m sure you can imagine, none of the creatures in any barn, nor any creatures you meet on the hiking path, really want to be dinner. Give it some thought. It’s all about love and compassion for animals AND the environment in my view.

  4. Thank you all for the comments! Auntie Barbara, I also feel that I ‘need’ nature, that that is where I feel the most whole. And I guess in Yellowknife too we had access to nature via ‘two feet and a heartbeat’. In the class I reference above we studied the David Suzuki Foundations conservation tactics and I do practice many of them already. And Grant, I have been reading a lot about the environmental benefits of letting go of meat and selfishly am not ready to completely, although we definitely don’t have it every day. However, about a week ago it crossed my mind as a really good option for my next thirty day challenge…

    When we were in Yoho at Thanksgiving we were using a hiking book that was from 1979. It was the 2nd release of a book that had originally been released in the early 70’s and while reading the intro we were both struck by something. The authors wrote how their original goal in the first one had been to make nature more accessible to humans, but now they were quite worried about the impact that that accessibility had had. As a result, while they were still releasing the improved version, there was a real conservation tone to the book. But interestingly enough, the main trail that they talked about, called the Highline Trail was actually closed. We were confused at first why the book kept saying Highline and the signs kept saying Skyline, but eventually we got to a sign that said that the Highline had been closed and replaced by the Skyline due to destruction. It was a pretty neat moment, one that I’m sure the author’s have come across themselves and have mixed feelings towards.

  5. Hey Jill,

    I thought this post was really interesting and keep meaning to write a sophisticated, well-thought-out response to it; however that’s unlikely to happen so I’m just going to brain-dump a few things instead.

    – This is definitely something I think/worry about too. I don’t know what “nature” thinks about “us” – although I think it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that we ARE nature, as much as the pine trees and the marmots, even though we act very differently from most other species. That’s not an argument for unchecked destruction or entitlement, but it’s a fact – we belong here on this planet. We just need to figure out how to make that work…??

    – There’s that old adage about how we will not protect something we do not love, and we cannot love something we don’t understand. Spending time in nature is important for raising people who will care enough to try to protect it. I believe kids (and adults) need to interact with nature – build forts, go off-trail, explore, get muddy – not just watch it through windows. Have you read anything by Richard Louv? His books Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle talk about this. I’m sure there are very sophisticated philosophers who also delve into the subject in much greater detail as well, but his books are an interesting starting point.

    – That said, I also really like the idea of there being wild spaces where humans just don’t go. I think a fair number of older cultures had sacred places that were protected in that way. I dig it.

    – Re: meat eating: personally I believe there is a place for ethical, responsible meat eating (and consumption of other animal products, like dairy and honey). The way we raise conventional meat is atrocious and I’m all for getting off THAT boat. And in North America I think we generally eat far more meat than is necessary (and do it mindlessly, too). But at the same time, there are many landscapes where you simply can’t raise the annual vegetable or grain crops with which our species is currently obsessed, and where you CAN raise animals – think herbivores grazing on rough, rocky hillsides with poor soil. Keeping those hills covered in perennial grasses, which ruminants can digest but we humans can’t, protects and actually enhances the soil there. Ploughing up the hill to try to grow tomatoes or broccoli would lead to erosion, nutrient runoff, and possibly irreversible destruction of the land. So there’s an argument that drinking milk from a local farm that looks like that is more environmentally conscious than eating red peppers and tomatoes shipped up here from Mexico in February. In nature, animals and plants work together to balance out a landscape. In farming, I think the same thing often makes sense.

    Some people think eating any kind of animal product is unethical and I respect that. But personally I believe there’s an ethical, environmentally conscious way to eat meat… it depends on functional, small-scale local food systems, which can be hard to find these days, but there are some good farmers out there making it work!

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